Saffron consists of the stigmas (including the pistils) that are picked from the flowers that grow on the Crocus sativus plant. Saffron is known for its bright red-orange color and the distinctive floral flavor profile that it lends to Spanish paella and French bouillabaisse. It has long had a reputation as the world’s’ most expensive spice. The reputation stems from a few factors, such as:
Harvesting saffron takes work and time
The stigmas are thin threads that grow inside the flowers, which is why it is impossible to do the job of picking them out with machinery. They are too delicate to be removed with a machine without the stigma disintegrating. All saffron is harvested entirely by hand including the harvesting of the flowers. The work requires a lot of manual labor and time. It can take over 80 hours to get 1 pound of saffron.
Saffron must be harvested quickly
All of a farmer’s saffron can flower in the same week. As a result, once it starts flowering, it is necessary to move quickly to minimize waste. Saffron has to be harvested shortly after sunrise to ensure that the flowers are not damaged by the sun’s heat. The short harvesting time makes processing saffron even more labor-intensive.
There is very little saffron per crocus plant
Each crocus flower contains only three stigmas so it takes more than 75,000 flowers to provide a single pound of the spice.
Another factor that makes it even more expensive is that a lot of saffron gets thrown away. The highest quality saffron is made with only the stigmas’ red tips with the rest being discarded. In Iran, the lowest grade consists of whole stigmas from tips to base. The stigmas are dried so that they retain their color and flavor but the process of drying the saffron to preserve it also increases the cost per pound since it loses about 80 percent of its weight when dried.
Crocus plants are extremely susceptible to harsh weather conditions
The cost of saffron is contingent on factors like winter freezes and summer droughts in Iran since most of the world’s saffron supply originates in Iran. Ample rain before harvest means larger flowers; poor rainfall means smaller ones. Reduced harvests cause the price of saffron to skyrocket.
Saffron crocuses require a specific climate
Historically, saffron has been produced in Iran, Greece, and Spain as well as in Morocco. These are all locations with dry and warm climates. The specific mix of temperature and rainfall is available in only a few parts of the world. Because of ongoing droughts and climate change, experts expect the cost of saffron to remain high.
Saffron farming requires a low labor cost
As noted above, saffron requires many man-hours to harvest. For saffron farming to be profitable, a ready supply of laborers willing to accept low wages is necessary. This places another limitation on the number of places in the world where saffron can be farmed. For example, Spain used to be one of the main producers but has a strong economy and high labor costs as a result.
Saffron farming uses a lot of land
A spice’s profitability is based in part on how much of it is typically harvested per acre of farmland. Saffron only delivers about a pound per acre which is extremely low compared to other spices like cumin that can give a farmer 300 pounds per acre. As a result, some farmers are reluctant to plant it.